CHELSEA, MANHATTAN: The right piece of fatherly advice can last a lifetime.
Just ask Ken “Duro” Ifill, who got some priceless guidance growing up in the bustling multi-culti neighborhood of Queens Village, New York. “My dad told me: ‘Whatever you do, be the best,’” says Duro, scanning New York City’s skyline from the terrace of Jungle City Studios. “He said, ‘If you want to be a garbage man, fine. But you should plan on owning the sanitation company.’”
True to form, young Duro was listening – very carefully.
Flash forward to 2011, and his name is synonymous with success. As a mixer and engineer he’s worked in service of a client list that any audio professional would envy, including Jay-Z, Mariah Carey, Diddy, Alicia Keys, Nas, Ja Rule, Ashanti, The Backstreet Boys, Ruff Ryders…the list just goes on and on. GRAMMY Award wins for the massive Jay-Z and Alicia Keys hit “Empire State of Mind”, and his work with Erykah Badu, Will Smith, Jay-Z, Ashanti, Usher, back up his value – built up from a discography that now spans two decades.
On the executive side, Duro has shown equal endurance. As the CEO of Desert Storm Records, he and his partners Skane Dolla and DJ Clue have been responsible for exposing extreme talent like Fabolous to the masses, with more on the way from recent signings like Dose and 1st String.
The final quarter of 2011 has, not surprisingly, proven busy for him, evidenced by the recent releases of the Duro-mixed Jay Sean mixtape The Mistress, and rapper Professor Green’s ear-grabbing new collection At Your Inconvenience. But before he reached his state of in-demand grace, the unassuming Duro had to get inspired – REALLY inspired. That event unfolded with his first listening of 1991’s landmark The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest.
“The reason why I wanted to be a mixer was because of Bob Power and The Low End Theory,” Duro confirms. “It’s the first album I heard with a clear difference sonically. I heard it and I said, ‘Why is the bass so big?’ It had an acoustic sound to it, but it was still hip hop. So I started to dig in and try to find out exactly why it sounded like that.
“When I actually started mixing records, for any record I was working on I would find a song that Bob Power mixed that was similar: I’d put it in the CD player, hit ‘repeat,’ and while I was mixing my record, I’d A/B between his record and my record to get the kicks sounding the way I wanted, and the snares.
“I was like most artists, who start off emulating someone, and then grow into their own. Eventually, I stopped using his mixes as a reference. I thought, ‘I love his stuff, but I want my records to sound more aggressive, less jazzy, a little harder knocking.’ I began to prefer bigger kicks, and bigger snares.”
The grand, multifaceted elements he balances in “Empire State of Mind” are a different dimension from the intimately spare, raw sound that he supported with his mix work on Erykah Badu’s entrancing 1997 hit record Baduizm – a personal evolution he readily acknowledges.
“As I got better, and my ears became more trained, I started listening more to not just one big stroke of the brush, but all the finer details as well,” says Duro. “My change has been to gradually pay more attention to the details, and then identify what needs to be changed in the details – how to make things sit together, and have all of the social elements live together in the sound spectrum.
“Every song is different because there are different elements. I’ll hear something and say, ‘That should be the focus of the record,’ and I build it from there. Put another way, I’ll say, ‘This song would be great if… And I attack the ‘if.’”
A Duro mix has a way of falling effortlessly into place – for both the artist and listener. On a cinematic album like Fabolous’s 2009 Loso’s Way, the separation between each element, dirty or clean, unfolds naturally between the speakers. The result is a direct translation of the artist’s vision straight to the eardrum, via an intuitive, tuned-in approach to mixing that Duro can more easily demonstrate than explain.
“I try not to think too much when I’m mixing,” he reveals. “If something feels good, it’s right. It’s that simple. If I mix a song today, it will sound one way. If I mix it tomorrow, how I feel then, or even the weather could affect it. I don’t look at knobs, and mixing is not a technical process for me. I view it as the last creative process in the making of the record.”
Working strictly by feel, Duro keeps extraneous hardware and software out of the signal path – an efficient approach that brings him straight to the sound. “On my mixes, there’s only about three or four plugins that I use,” he says. “A lot of times I don’t use EQ, and I’m not using a lot of compression either. It’s about balance – moving levels up and down, panning left and right. If you’re working with a good producer, then he picked the sounds he wanted for a reason, and so it’s about putting the pieces in a puzzle together coherently.”
Fresh off applying his touch to the dark acoustics of Professor Green’s Inconvenience, Duro sees how the mixer’s identity shows up in each work, even as it’s performed in the service of each clients’ unique artistry.
“I think I have a sound — there are pieces of me on everything that I work on,” he says. “But there are also certain things I won’t do. A lot of times people want to squash their records with brick-wall limiting. I won’t do that, even if it means I’m not doing a project. I don’t think that people who do that sell out, but it’s not what I’m going to do. I’m not going to do anything and everything.”
Like Jay-Z and Picasso, Duro sees the mixer as an artist in their own right, sporting a clear signature that comes with their territory. When pressed, he can identify those differentiating factors about himself.
“I think my mixes are dynamic, warm and organic,” says Duro. “If I do use compression, it will come from a tape machine – it’s not going to come from an L2. I believe in leaving a lot of headroom. If you want it louder, I leave space for the mastering engineer to do his piece. And if you still want it louder…maybe you need more amplification in your stereo.”
Hear some of Duro’s latest work in Professor Green’s UK #1 single “Read All About It” (featuring the emerging singer Emeli Sande):
An established hitmaker on the label side with the proven success of Fabolous, Duro doesn’t simply define his role in terms of selling records. Just as important is taking up the task of artist development – a task long ago abandoned by what remains of the established record companies.
For Desert Storm artists like 1st String and Dose, Duro and his partners try to keep track of their big-picture responsibilities. “We want to do the same thing with them as we did with Fabolous and DJ Clue – give them careers, not just one single and done,” he explains. “A part of that is artist development, which major labels now don’t have the time or desire to do. The label system has become more and more corporate, more hands-off, and less connected to the artist. They really have no problems with putting you on the shelf, or just dropping you.